Jude Law and Michael Caine in a gay movie
This time last year, I was sitting around at table with the director, the screenwriter and the novelist responsible for bringing Notes on a Scandal to theatres, debating about whether or not Judi Dench’s repressed school teacher was indeed gay and harboring romantic feelings for Cate Blanchett.
I got sort of’s and maybes—I got a ‘yes, but certainly not of a sexual nature’ and ‘if you told Judi’s character Barbara she was gay, she’d vehemently deny it’. Everyone seemed to agree that Barbara Covett possessed a certain attraction for women she felt couldn’t be fulfilled by the other sex, and yet the idea that she might be gay had never once crossed her mind.
Which at once made Notes on a Scandal the must see gay film of 2006 (and don’t give me Dreamgirls, folks)—one that may or may not even have a gay character.
Well, it’s 2007 and the must see gay film of this year may or may not have a gay character in it. Sleuth, starring Michael Caine and Jude Law, is a reinterpretation on a 1970’s film of the same name, starring Caine and Sir Laurence Olivier. Obviously Caine’s switching roles this time around, and the script, done this time around by Harold Pinter from the play by Anthony Schaffer, bears almost no resemblance to the original.
So why do it?
Any number of reasons: Law, for one (who also executive produced); certainly including Pinter and director Kenneth Branagh and most surely the fact that neither Pinter nor Branagh had ever seen the original.
Which allowed the team to reinvent. In fact, Caine says, only one line from the original film is even in this picture, a cat and mouse game in which Law and Caine battle wits over Caine’s wife, who Law’s been sleeping with.
Caine lures Law to his country home with the promise of finally granting his wife the divorce she’s long been pursuing. What follows is a no holds barred war of power shifts, mind games and armed banter. But what makes this Sleuth different from the original are the all too evident homoerotic undertones that fuel this production.
First when Caine has the power, coaxing Law into a warped headgame—winner take the wife—Law begs for his life by claiming he doesn’t even like women, just the money.
Later, when Law has the leg up, Caine begs him to ditch his wife so the two of them can live together and play house—travel, share a life… it’s the ultimate sugar daddy, playboy set up—a pathetic plea, really… one Law is sure to milk with just the right caress.
Is Caine really finding himself infatuated with Law, or is it just another one of his sick mind games… one he’s all too sure Law will latch onto?
In an interview with About.com, Branagh said that’s the beauty Pinter’s writing—there are no absolutes. “I think one of the beautiful things about the script was just endless, endless interesting question marks. Not annoying ones, but ones that make you go away from the film and talk about it. And in that third act, that great twist in which Harold (Pinter) borrows the plot up until that point and says … ‘We have completely and utterly humiliated each other and that’s now made me think you are my kind of person’.”
“And suddenly that was legitimate, as weird and intensified as it was and compressed as it was. But the very compression, the very irrationality, the high temperature of this kind of revenge drama made you feel it was possible. Then it started to make me think, ‘Well, is he gay? Is this happening in the moment or is this part of a kind of provocation which will lead to an ultimate and yet to be discovered humiliation, which we don’t get a chance to see because Jude turns the tables and says, F–k off you big poof!’ We are not sure what it was, and so they play it.”
Using sexuality as a weapon is nothing new to filmmaking, but allowing actors to use it so blatantly—particularly two men—is completely foreign to American cinema. Tiring and impressive as the trick of shape shifting characters on camera may seem to pull off (consider that for 90 minutes, Caine and Law are the only two actors on screen), Caine says the trick is to take all that work and make it look simple.
“All of it is difficult because, what you’re doing is you’re trying to make it look easy,” he explains. “It’s like watching Fred Astaire dance—you think, ‘I could do that’ because he makes it look easy.”
And they do. Oscar winner Caine rips into his role with intensity—he’s at once menacing, empowered but tortured and destroyed. Across from him, Law is bumbling yet sexy, then cruel… off his rocker, even. Both men square off like we’re watching a master class in acting.
“I had a completely reliable actor who I thought was brilliant,” Caine explains. “I can’t work with bad actors—I can’t do it. If I’m with someone and he’s giving a bad performance, it’s the only time in movies that I forget my lines, because I’m going, ‘ I wonder what he’s doing’. And they’re saying, ‘It’s your next line, Michael’. Oh shit!”
Law says stumbling upon the meaty, multi-layered role of Milo was an accident. He says he approached the project as a producer, first and foremost, and it was only after seeing what Pinter brought to the script, and the many ways he could keep the audience guessing about his character, that it even occurred to him that he might be right for the part.
“I love producing,” the 34-year-old actor says. “I’ll tell you, what I love about it is putting people together. I love working with writer, think I could write one day—I know I can’t—but I love working with writers and their ability to fill a blank page with dream, imagination. I love the ability to put a great writer and a great director, a great writer and a great actor together—it’s like throwing a big party.”
And party they do—in fact, this is one of the most superb pairings of talent seen on screen since, well, Notes of a Scandal. And while the undertones might have been a bit more surface there, in Sleuth and, particularly, in the hands of Law, who’s dabbled in homosexual undertones in The Talented Mr. Ripley and Wilde before this, this time around, you feel like you’re watching a plot point come to life not even the playwright could have predicted.
“He retains probably one line from the original play… ‘It’s only a game’… but the rest of this three act piece is pure Harold Pinter and he’s very proud of, very proprietary… he really felt it was his.”
Now—to get inside Pinter’s head!
I remember saying, ‘About the ending, Harold…’, Caine remembers. “He said, ‘WHAT?’ I said, ‘Nothing’.”
Not gonna happen!
October 30, 2007